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Neil Thompson Posted:
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Forums & Feedback
How devs can get more out of their commmunities

Editorial by Neil Thompson

We've all seen them, those little online communities where people gather to argue, discuss, fight, pontificate and generally try to belittle each other, where ideas are thrown about and rubbished, where people with a common interest prove just how little they actually do have in common with each other. I am of course talking about online forums.

Forums are a good place to start when looking at a new game. They can give you a feel for the game, for the community and for how the two sync. You can find out about how long developers take to fix bugs in the game and how stable updates are. They really are invaluable to potential customers, but, just how invaluable are they to the people making the games.

Ok, they are a great source of feedback, but just how much of this feedback is constructive? Posts such as "This game sux, cya", which can be found on many forums, no matter how good the game, obviously don't help anyone as they usually don't say why the game ‘sux'. This kind of feedback is irrelevant and I am sure is ignored by most.

On the other hand some of this feedback can be useful to the developers such as when bugs and exploits are unearthed and discussed and when game mechanics that are not working as they are meant to are highlighted.

The real problem comes when people give their opinion as feedback. "Clerics are overpowered" (hahahahaha), "The game is too hard" and "We want PvP" are all cries I have seen from time to time in one form or another. The problem is, once one person starts shouting nerf, everyone starts.

The devs will nerf that cleric eventually, then all the other things that are being called on to be nerfed leaving the game slightly different from what it was originally, and sometimes totally changing it. They have to, they're looking at the whole picture, while most of the time, fans are only privy to their smaller picture.

The way I see it only a very small proportion of a games players actually sign up and use the official forums. From experience I would suggest that most of these players have played in a number of different MMORPGs and probably been active members of their forum communities too, as I have seen many of the same people posting on forums for different games.

So, are developers using a minority of players to decide upon the customer satisfaction of their game? In essence are the vocal few demanding changes the rest of us may not want?

The argument against this is of course that the forums are a good cross section of the community. I personally don't agree with this. I believe that many people who frequent and post on forums do so because they enjoy being part of that community and are therefore influenced by others within that community.

For instance, if a new player who had only been playing a game for a few weeks read a post by a high level player stating that such and such a class was overpowered then the low level player would no doubt start looking for this uberness that possibly isn't even there. Forums prime people to look for problems and therefore are not a valid tool to measure the customer satisfaction of a game.

Also, does this mean that people who don't log into the forums and voice their opinion are happy with the game? Of course not, there will be many, probably a majority of players who start and leave a game without ever saying why.

So how can this satisfaction be measured? Well, the obvious answer is subscription numbers but the fact that the population of a virtual world goes up or down doesn't tell the developers what people like or dislike about the game.

MMORPG developers, however, have a tool that is perfect for this task. They have a customer base that has to repeatedly come to them and even better, they have all our email addresses. How about having a customer satisfaction survey every quarter on your log in screens where you know everyone who plays the game will see it. Some companies, such as EA Mythic, have done things like this in the past, but far too many ignore that example.

Ask people what they like about your product, what they don't like and what they would like to see in the future. I'm not saying you should always bend to popular opinion, but unless you ask a variety of people how are you going to know what popular opinion is?

Look at it this way. Everyone in the world needs food. But, different people in different places like different foods, the reason of course being the culture that they are accustomed to, they start to develop a taste for what is around them. It is the same with any group of people who interact, they will start to feed off each others ideas and opinions and forums are no different.

‘The Wisdom of Crowds' (James Surowiecki) states that larger groups of independent people will always come to a better decision than a small group of experts and is it any wonder, after all, they are pulling from a much more diverse pool of knowledge which isn't influenced by so called experts.

I know someone will say that developers have better things to do – like actually work on the game content - and they can't afford to waste time sifting through so much data. Well, I can only riposte by asking how they can not afford to do this, it is their job that is on the line at the end of the day. This is why Community Management teams need to be more than just mouthpieces for developers, but also a conduit back to them. Too many companies think a community manager just posts their vision on public message boards.

Don't let the fans simply control the direction a game takes, if that happened then all games would be the same as they balanced out at the median level. What we need is for developers to broaden their means of gathering feedback about their products, people will be more than happy to tell them, all they have to do is ask.


Neil Thompson